back to article UK judge gives Google a choice: Either let SEO expert read your ranking algos or withdraw High Court evidence

Google must either show its "crown jewels" to a man it described to the High Court as a search engine optimisation expert – or give up parts of its defence in a long-running competition lawsuit, the High Court has ruled. In a case unfolding in Britain over whether Google wrongly demoted price comparison rival Foundem from its …

  1. DJV Silver badge

    Oooh!

    Popcorn time!

    1. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Re: Oooh!

      You're search for Popcorn has returned:

      'Google is not Guilty'

      'Nothing to see here'

      'We know where you live'

  2. Flak

    Hobson's choice

    Given that the evidence will focus on historical algorithms which have been updated and changed many times since 2006, surely this cannot be as big a deal for Google as they make out.

    So, Google, what is it going to be - evidence, or no evidence?

    AC, because I don't want to mysteriously slip down Google's rankings...

    1. Cereberus

      Re: Hobson's choice

      I thought the same thing, then I thought some more and came up with:

      Surely it isn't beyond the realms of possibility that someone who no longer works as an SEO could be appointed by Foundem to review the code independently, (could have moved to a different field or retired) and who could also be subject to an NDA so they can't pass info to another SEO to make use of any info they see.

      Google would then either have to adhere to the judges decision (either way) or show how he code is of commercial relevance 14 years later in such a fast moving area.

      1. Roland6 Silver badge

        Re: Hobson's choice

        >Surely it isn't beyond the realms of possibility that someone who no longer works as an SEO could be appointed by Foundem to review the code independently,

        Why?

        Basically, Google don't want to admit the degree to which its 'algorithms' are manipulated by its employees ...

        Remember, Googles defense "The integrity of Google's ranking processes relies upon all webmasters or website owners having the same degree of access to information about Google's ranking..." can be satisfied by the judge deciding a public interest angle and puts Googles entire evidence into the public domain...

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Hobson's choice

          Perhaps I'm over thinking this but I would hope that the expert would check that the algorithm explains the change in ranking and also check that ti explains a handful of other rankings in related searches... just in case the algorithm presented by Google has been created just for this hearing :-)

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Hobson's choice

          Oh boy are we now pandering to SEOs all of a sudden. I have no love for Google but the idea of helping SEOs to blather their crap all over the rankings is not something I wish to return to.

          Some may not remember the days when people like Foundem were trying to fill every page of search results with meta searches. Basically a link to another site that had a collection of links and with each hop there was a deterioration in quality.

          I just want my search results to be relevant not spammed by people who are trying to work out whether they need to insert a word 5 times on line 2 or three times on line 7 to force themselves onto page 1 of my results.

          1. Roland6 Silver badge

            Re: Hobson's choice

            >Some may not remember the days when people like Foundem were trying to fill every page of search results with meta searches.

            Some may not remember the days when companies other than Google got useful results into the first page. Remember the battles (still on-going) over Google scrapping other websites like Wikipedia and presenting their content formatted as "Google" content; we saw similar skullduggery with maps, shopping - and we haven't even touched on "Hey Google"...

        3. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Hobson's choice

          It's the same with twatty estate agents.

          "We have to treat everyone fairly, that's why we don't disclose other peoples offers".

          Or...

          "We legally can't tell you".

          It's equally as fair to just tell everyone all of the offers as soon as they put an offer in. That way nobody has an advantage.

          Also, there is no law preventing an estate agent disclosing the value of previous offers. Literally nothing.

          The reason the estate agents don't disclose the offers has nothing to do with fairness or legality, it has everything to do with preventing the price being driven into the ground and thus reducing their commission / reputation.

          If ever a law on disclosure should be implemented, it should enforce transparency on all offers.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Hobson's choice

            "Also, there is no law preventing an estate agent disclosing the value of previous offers."

            In my limited experience estate agents pro-actively reveal competing offers to other prospective buyers - creating a bidding battle until only one buyer "wins". So you get either the first person being gazumped - or forced to pay a higher price if they match the counter offers.

            1. ICPurvis47 Bronze badge
              Unhappy

              Re: Hobson's choice

              Happened to me, and cost me a lot of money. I went to view a house I was interested in buying, and it met most of my criteria. I then paid for several searches and a site survey, contacted the local council re planning permission, and generally spent many days and pounds deciding to buy. I phoned the agents on Friday afternoon to make an offer at the asking price. On Monday, the agents phoned me to say my offer had not been accepted. When I asked why, I was told that someone had gone into the estate agents' office on Saturday and offered £5000 more than the asking price, and was accepted. When I asked why the agents had not phoned me to tell me of this gazumping bid, they replied that they were "not in the business of conducting an auction". I then had to find another property and repeat the whole exercise, costing me a lot more money, before the collapse of Northern Rock put the kybosh on the whole deal.

              1. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Re: Hobson's choice

                What sort of idiot pays for searches before having an offer accepted 'subject to satisfactory searches' etc?

      2. Malcolm Weir Silver badge

        Re: Hobson's choice

        Ignoring the anti-big-company bias we generally see...

        My initial thought was that, as with the Coca-Cola recipe issue, that this creates a genuine conflict between trade secrets and and public policy with an adversarial legal system. Absent the adversarial thing, the court could appoint a neutral expert, but that's something we (US and UK, particularly) only do when it's the legal system's own secrets at issue (e.g. the courts routinely appoint special masters to examine claims of "legal privilege" which are fundamentally the same sort of idea, but they won't do that for non-lawyers, because... reasons!)

        But then I thought again, and realized that there must be people who used to work on Google algorithms but don't anymore, and those people would already have the special SEO insight that Google claims that they're worried about.

        So either Google is genuinely hiding a smoking gun (which doesn't seem too likely, because the papers in question have already been filed, by Google, and the fact that they are willing to allow a different third party to look at it), or this is a larger play in order to add credence to whatever the papers say ("they must be the crown jewels, because Google wanted to keep them under wraps").

        Therefore, my conclusion is that this is a "line in the sand" to limit how deep into Google's code this (and future) courts can pry...

        1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

          Re: Hobson's Choices and Busman's Holiday

          Therefore, my conclusion is that this is a "line in the sand" to limit how deep into Google's code this (and future) courts can pry... ..... Malcolm Weir

          Methinks that depth is governed by Google AI and not any court anywhere anytime.

          And there are certain times in exalted spaces and places whenever courts are best servered to remain in ignorance of alien third party intelligence which renders them a problem they are not equipped to adequately deal with.

          1. Cliff Thorburn

            Re: Hobson's Choices and Busman's Holiday

            I fought the challenge of the DARPA and Google mind great game, and all I got was this lousy CO V ID 19 .....

            1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

              Re: Hobson's Choices and Busman's Holiday

              I fought the challenge of the DARPA and Google mind great game, and all I got was this lousy CO V ID 19 ..... ...... Cliff Thorburn

              The challenge then is do better than they, CT, at whatever they be doing. And that would be certainly something they weren't expecting to worry themselves senseless about, methinks .

              Have you ever had cause to rattle the cages of DARPA and Google ..... enquiring after any HyperRadioProACTive Signs of Advanced IntelAIgents Exercising Most All Things Unusually to Identify Convenient Systemic Weaknesses in Subject Assets for Cultivation and Refining/Honing to Perfection?

              1. Youngone Silver badge

                Re: Hobson's Choices and Busman's Holiday

                Can someone reboot amanfrommars1 please?

                1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

                  Re: Hobson's Choices and Busman's Holiday

                  >Can someone reboot amanfrommars1 please? ...... Youngone

                  You'd think a DARPA would accept such an offer if available for purchase/leaselend for how else would anything or anyone be able to steer future direction from bases afar Hands On Live AIMaster Programming Future Perfecting Assets.

                  Is that liable to be practised best in DOD/CIA/FBI/PWND Porned Environments there to hone product placements to as close to perfection as needs be for successful deployment and constant enjoyment ?

                  Well surely you don't, after this current existential emergency, expect things to go right back to what was deemed as normal before the viral attack ? Are you Mad? A Slow Learner? Mentally Deficient?

                  What's your excuse for expecting such a backward step in a future process?

                  How very fortunate that such is not going to be at all possible because of the great colossal damage which has been and is still being done by the markets with their shenanigans and cohorts worshipping the Grand Imposter peddling voodoo economics.

                  Capiche?

                  1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

                    Re: Hobson's Choices and Busman's Holiday

                    Hmmm? .... a Most Impressive Virtual Portal opening heavenly doors to future works ? :-)

                    Let's Gift them an AI Package for Advanced Virtualised Field Testing and Source Funding and Rewarding ...... which is the Sole Prime Role of Profit ..... Something from Nowhere for Nothing but Profit and Immense Wealth. ....... which is a Dead Weight to Bear Inactive and/or Ineffectual in Market Spends which Can Choose to Trend ....... or Not to Trend as is Oft Vitally Necessary.

                    It is thought to give one in IT and AI a Relatively Certain Invisibility by Virtue of its Engaging Interest to Quite an Almighty Few. What's not to like there if Immunity and Impunity be Properly ACTivated?

        2. Fred Dibnah Silver badge

          Re: Hobson's choice

          "...there must be people who used to work on Google algorithms but don't anymore, and those people would already have the special SEO insight that Google claims that they're worried about."

          Almost certainly they also have the special non-disclosure agreement that Google 'asked' them to sign when they left.

    2. Snake Silver badge

      Re: The Hobson Black Box

      I find it refreshing that a judge, British of course, has finally had the strength of will to question Google's stance on this issue. For the past decade we've all been under Google's thumb;

      - we made a system, one that effects billions of people and businesses, but are unwilling to speak of it

      - we may be able to adjust it but won't tell you how or why

      - it makes choices, but we won't say which parameters it uses to make them

      - and if sued over it, we'll tell you effectively that you can trust it, won't allow any inspection of it, won't admit to any processes inside it, and claim that even governments need to leave it alone.

      But it's not a monopoly because although we own something like 90% of the world's search, you can simply trust us...and dismiss the case.

      That kind of crap flies here in the our modern, corporatist U.S., of course. Thank goodness for the unapologetic, far more insightful and level heads of Europe; I await Google's attempted denials.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: The Hobson Black Box

        one that Affects billions of people

        1. GeekyDee

          Re: The Hobson Black Box

          It's not like they are creating Rehoboam or something...

    3. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Re: Hobson's choice

      Presumably they would have to provide the data/software for the time of the 'crime' - or have they deleted evidence?

      1. 9Rune5 Silver badge

        Re: Hobson's choice

        Presumably they would have to provide the data/software for the time of the 'crime' - or have they deleted evidence?

        Where I work (a very small company) we have changed VCS at least twice since 2006. Only for the latest upgrade (from tfs to git) did we manage to retain the commit history.

        Presumably google has more developers to throw at problems like this, so hopefully they actually still have this history intact.

        In that case, I would have thought that a simple "this is our commit history for 2005-2006, feel free to look for the smoking gun" would have sufficed. And, since this is 14 year old source, it should not matter who gets to read it. (that goes both ways... find anyone proficient in the dev language google used at the time, and they should be able to make some heads and tails out of this)

        That said, it would surprise me if they don't have some sort of blacklists. And that does not necessarily have to be part of the main source repository. It could easily be maintained by a different department. (if so, the code to read said blacklist would still be there)

        1. PeterCarter

          Re: Hobson's choice

          What interests me is yes, who and why they blacklist, but also who and why they whitelist and how that affects the ratings. From all the info Google have given, when you piece it together it goes like this: these are the people Google say they trust, then there are the people they don't trust to act in Google's interests. If the people they trust indicate they like you (backlinks) then you're rated higher. If people they don't like backlink you, they'll rate you lower. It's a massive popularity contest with Google as a beauty queen in the center. And of course, if you compete or disagree with them they'll derank you. That's just that nature of the game now. There's no democracy on the internet... (Brave new world, eh?)

  3. Trollslayer Silver badge
    IT Angle

    Who trusts Google when money is involved

    That's all.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Who trusts Google when money is involved

      You forgot to say

      "Google does what adds loads of dosh into their bank accounts and F**k the rest of the world."

      Posting AC for what little good it will do. Google already knows what I had for breakfast this morning.

      Google IS BIG BROTHER!

      1. Glen 1 Silver badge

        Re: Who trusts Google when money is involved

        Bob. It's the caps that give it away.

        Love,

        Google.

  4. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    One imagines Google know what needs next to be done.

    Ouch! That ruling is a right kick in the nuts. Who/What considered that a Wisest Ploy?

    Quarantined Exile is Probably the Most Appropriate Reward for such as are Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. :-)

    Do Alphabets Support and Power Delivery of Much Sought After Assets via their Simple Introduction with Explosive Presentations on MultiMedia MainStreams.

    Come on Google/Alphabet. You're in to bat .... and win win if you care to dare . :-)

  5. Aristotles slow and dimwitted horse Silver badge

    Alternatively...

    Alternatively, there could be nothing complex about these algorithms at all and that is actually what Google doesn't want revealed. And that it really is just a bunch of humans taking ad-hoc decisions to demote competitors.

  6. nijam

    Alternatively...

    ... the whole SEO business is itself a huge scam anyway?

    1. bazza Silver badge

      Re: Alternatively...

      Just like the business of running search engines then!

  7. Barry Rueger

    Foundations of the modern Internet

    A globally dominant search and services giant, operating almost entirely behind a very opaque screen, answering to no one, battled by an army of highly-paid SEO gurus who rely largely on tea leaves and rumour to understand how Google works.

    Meanwhile, it's my experience that Google search becomes less useful every day

    .

    1. stiine Silver badge
      Unhappy

      Re: Foundations of the modern Internet

      You, sir, are absolutely correct.

    2. A.P. Veening Silver badge

      Re: Foundations of the modern Internet

      A globally dominant search and services giant, operating almost entirely behind a very opaque screen, answering to no one only to the large shareholders, battled by an army of highly-paid SEO gurus who rely largely on tea leaves and rumour to understand how Google works.

      Meanwhile, it's my experience that Google search becomes less useful every day

      FTFY, otherwise I completely agree.

      1. Dan 55 Silver badge

        Re: Foundations of the modern Internet

        The shareholders couldn't care how it works, they just want the earnings to go up every quarter. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

        P.S. Have an upvote for the drive-by downvoter.

  8. ExampleOne

    Is it me or is there a pattern of Google discovering non-US judges tend to be less willing to let them play fast and loose?

    It sounds a lot like Google are trying to submit evidence hidden in incomprehensible jargon deliberately and are trying to block anyone who might know about the field from actually viewing it. That is not going to fly this side of the Atlantic.

    But then they have form for a fairly contemptuous attitude to courts this side of the Atlantic.

    1. RegGuy1 Silver badge

      Ah, the joys of having free trials.

      We also have HP/Autonomy to look forward to. Something (for once) that Britain does well.

  9. nematoad Silver badge
    Happy

    Ah, a Boris angle.

    "...putting forward two of its own suggested experts."

    Talk about having your cake and eating it.

    It would appear that the English judiciary is a little less frightened of Google than their US counterparts.

    What a choice! I will look forward to see how Google's lawyers try and wriggle out of this one.

  10. Claverhouse Silver badge
    Go

    Elected Officials Also

    Google/Alphabet's caution is unfounded. SEO Professionals form a sacred college of learned men and have a system of applied ethics that matches medicos and lawyers in their duties.

    1. David 132 Silver badge
      Happy

      Re: Elected Officials Also

      You’re right. They’ve all sworn the Hypocritical Oath.

  11. alain williams Silver badge

    The ranking algorithms should be disclosed full stop

    Given how important they are, how much they affect how web sites are seen, how much they affect what you see, it is not right that these are secret. The broad specifications should be known to all. Not disclosing it is like an airline not giving its precise route between London and New York.

    OK: the details might not be put on the google web site but they should be audited at random, but frequent, intervals to keep google honest.

    The same goes for Bing, DuckDuckGo, StartPage, etc.

    Will this increase gaming of google's algorithms ? A bit: but it will hopefully level the playing field.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: The ranking algorithms should be disclosed full stop

      Shouldn't be a problem, if every site discovers that putting their product name 137 times in the header pushes them up the Google rankings then overall nothing changes.

      (at least for me, I use DDG and piHole and Brave and frankly more software to block ads than I use to do my work)

      1. stiine Silver badge
        Mushroom

        Re: The ranking algorithms should be disclosed full stop

        How do you block People Also Ask? Because I don't give a fuck what other people are asking. I also want to shoot ASSEOs who insert microsoft error message into their web pages because, face it, how many admins search for obscure microsoft error message on google because bing used to suck terribly?

        1. Dan 55 Silver badge

          Re: The ranking algorithms should be disclosed full stop

          PAA is a Google Search "feature", right? If you don't like it, I would have thought the answer to that question would have been obvious.

          DDG for me, mostly.

  12. Milton

    I'm waiting ...

    I'm waiting for the moment when Google is given a corporate truth drug and says—

    "Actually, our analyses show that 99.3% of internet advertising is completely worthless shit. 97.7% of SEO is rubbish too. The vast majority of clicks—that we get paid for, yuk yuk—are by robots, and even the meatbrain ones almost never lead to a sale. But we made a ton of money from the wishful thinking of totally gullible idiots. Turns out, when you've convinced a critical mass of halfwits that the emperor is wearing clothes, there's another even bigger tranche of halfwits competing to describe them to all the remaining halfwits. Who suck it up cos our predecessors (thanks, consumer business!) convinced them that buying shiny trash made them happy, and that spaffing their credit card balance would get them laid. To be honest, we've been wondering for years when you morons would figure it out ... anyway, 'Don't be Evil'!! Mwah ha ha ..."

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I'm waiting ...

      Jizzusssssss

      1. A.P. Veening Silver badge

        Re: I'm waiting ...

        Wrong, Beelzebub.

    2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: I'm waiting ...

      It's the old "half of all advertising budget is wasted. The problem is identifying which half". On-line advertising, clicked ads and analytics is the new snake oil to the Ad managers so they can feel like they now know which half is the well-spent half and re-direct the other half into the same pot, ie Googles bank.

    3. Mark192 Bronze badge

      Re: I'm waiting ...

      I agree that the cast majority of Internet advertising doesn't lead to a sale (probably lower than what you guessed at) but Internet advertising is different from regular advertising in that it enables the success (or otherwise) of that ad to be tracked, from views to clicks to sales.

  13. FlippingGerman

    Compromise

    It seems if the two parties could agree on an expert, this matter would be settled, although as stated, Foundem has no reason to do this - they're not trying to see IF they're right, they're trying to win a court case.

    1. doublelayer Silver badge

      Re: Compromise

      That will never happen. Google doesn't want anyone to see these who isn't friendly to them. This could be for one of two reasons. If the data they've submitted is designed to hide or simply doesn't contain damning information that in fact exists, they don't want anyone to stumble on it, whereas if the data they've submitted is genuine, they want absolutely none of it to ever get out, even in summarized expert-created form. Foundem wouldn't want to agree either, because if the evidence shows that they were not targeted or unfairly treated, they don't want to have anyone admit this in court and if the data is on their side, they don't want to have an expert hedge on the denunciation. Court cases so rarely involve amicable discussions.

    2. Psmo Silver badge

      Re: Compromise

      Except that Foundem as a business doesn't really exist anymore. This might well be the founders' exit strategy.

    3. Dan 55 Silver badge

      Re: Compromise

      It seems if the two parties could agree on an expert, this matter would be settled

      For want of an inquisitorial court system...

  14. druck Silver badge

    Foundem - found f*ck!

    I remember when Foundem and their ilk and would infest the first dozen pages of all search results, and every link took you to some irrelevant crap which didn't even contain the search term.

    Whatever you think of Google, keeping these link spammers at the bottom of the search rankings is the best thing they have ever done.

  15. HKmk23

    I think this is the wording

    Power corrupts....absolute power corrupts absolutley.........that is wht I stopped using Google 10 years ago!

  16. SEOpremo

    Getting to the top is hard

    Algorithm changes all the time, this is ancient history, websites periodically got slammed back in the day as big updates crushed sites.

    Other search engines are available. Google is popular for a reason. It gained market share early, the job of an SEO expert like me (SEOpremo) is to unravel the ranking algorithm and reverse engineer it. Did Google squash a competitor? Perhaps then, but I can’t see it happening now (for commercial results anyway) as to many eyes are on them.

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